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Defending criticism

Updated April 14, 2019

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AT a time when critical voices are increasingly being branded ‘subversive’, even a passing observation, made in the right forum, acquires deep significance.

Heading a Supreme Court bench constituted to oversee the implementation of the Diamer-Basha dam project, Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed recently remarked that he would “always prefer even unfair criticism to silence” in response to the attorney general drawing the court’s notice to a talk show that aired criticism of the project.

It is a refreshing change of pace, given that the air of groupthink which pervaded the project and its fundraising drive not only left many questions unanswered, but had citizens wondering whether they could even voice concerns without facing a backlash.

Indeed, the apex court itself adjudicates on the basis of majority judgements and dissenting opinions authored after exhaustive deliberation — in recognition of the fact that jurisprudence is strengthened by active, rigorous debate.

Why then should the same not apply to all matters of public policy?

Criticism, even if it is unfair or uninformed, provided that it is made in good faith at least opens up the space to respond to such arguments and defend one’s position, ensuring that important decisions are not made without consultation, consensus and oversight.

Responsiveness and accountability in governance can only flourish in a society that encourages countervailing forces against absolute authority.

Yet what we have witnessed in recent years is growing intolerance towards any form of critique. This has led to an erosion of fundamental rights, as the principles of inalienability and universality undergirding them are set aside when there is growing impunity, even justification, for attacks on critics.

‘Securing national interests’, ‘preserving Pakistani culture’, ‘promoting a positive image’ — these have become catch-all phrases adopted by those who believe that undermining a free press, clamping down on activists and threatening vulnerable groups are appropriate routes to national cohesion.

Drawing arbitrary lines between who does or doesn’t have a say, or what can or cannot be said, creates a murky and unaccountable regime that rules by diktat rather than the people’s will.

Coercing silence is especially dangerous in a society where democratic traditions have never been allowed to secure their roots, and conformity is prized — often even above conscience.

Those who wish stability and progress for this nation would do well to recognise the hubris of allowing a cacophony of yes-men to drown out the voices of reason.

Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2019